How Cultural Institutions Can Conserve Our Cultural Heritage Through Innovative Technology

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As an art conservator, I had some thrilling moments: discovering a previously unknown portrait of Charles Darwin; working with Turner’s transcendent sketchbooks; holding the very microscope scientist Robert Hooke had peered through to coin the term “cell.” I also consult contemporary artists on the preservation of their work — for instance, grappling with the ethics behind restoring Gustav Metzger’s “To Walk Into.” Having been known for “auto-destructive art,” meaning art intended to deteriorate quickly, it was very possible Metzger would be against intervention with any of his art.

I had moved continents and dedicated years of training to achieve my dream career safeguarding the condition of world-class art collections in some of London’s greatest institutions. But I was becoming jaded, worn down by the relentless paperwork, politics and bureaucracy involved in being a museum’s art conservator.

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So when the iPad launched in 2010, I became an entrepreneur, developing an app that would transform conservators’ most time-consuming form of paperwork: the condition report. These documents, generally created for insurance purposes, detail any marks, flaws or damages in artworks as they move around for exhibitions. But with no standardised approach to annotations, handwritten notes in multiple languages and digital photos stored separately from analog paperwork, the reports were often incomprehensible and could take hours to interpret and create. My aim was to make condition-checking a more efficient, digital process, helping other conservators claw back time to work on their passion: conserving our cultural heritage.

A decade later, a digital industry standard is, at last, becoming a reality, adopted by major institutions across the globe. But it has been a slow process. Museums have a reputation for being resistant to change, and I have witnessed firsthand their reluctance to cutting-edge technology. Given the vital role they play as guardians of our culture, this hesitation to the unknown was partly understandable. It was also unsurprising: Suspicion toward commercial enterprise had been ingrained in me during my undergraduate studies. Anyone in the business of art, I was taught, was out for a quick buck, unconcerned with art as culture, and so best avoided.

Thankfully, I have now learned that business can be moral, and creativity is not exclusive to artists. Rather, some of the most exciting, innovative ideas stem from technology and new business. So it has frustrated me that art institutions were unwilling to embrace life-improving tech with the same passion that they champion bold and boundary-pushing works of art; this mindset is a hindrance to progress. But things are changing, and at a more rapid pace than ever before.

During this devastating pandemic, even the “old guard” has discovered that things we thought forever set in stone can change in an instant. They have had to become open to some of the many technological solutions that can safeguard their futures. Take, for example, the American Ballet Theatre accepting micro-donations during closure via social media broadcasts of performances for Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital and the Art Fund crowdfunding with impressive limited edition contemporary art prints to tempt you to the next tier. More instances of these advancements include David Parr House using Matterport and Zoom to provide fantastic virtual curator tours, and the Uffizi providing impressively funny content on Tik Tok.

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Thus, I believe there is now an unprecedented opportunity to become more adaptable, change inefficient processes, increase access, engage younger and more diverse audiences and add new streams of funding. In other words, we have the opportunity to build back better.

Embracing new ways of doing things could not come at a more urgent time, because we have another crisis on our hands: the climate emergency. Museums and galleries are trusted educators of the public, and during this “decade of change” should be required to meet ambitious 2030 carbon footprint reduction targets. Museums must not only meet these challenging targets themselves but play a role in educating society on how we can hold governments and organisations accountable to the Paris Agreements.

To accomplish all this, we must teach the “old guard” new tricks, and they should embrace innovation. Not only this, but they need to listen to the innovation experts: Art, business and tech leaders and digital transformation consultants who have experience identifying pain points and designing technology solutions to address them.

For example, gone (should be) the days of culture organizations building software in-house. We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel over and over, and culture organizations shouldn’t expect their audiences, partners or staff to deal with learning unprofessional, outdated in-house interfaces. I believe a modern approach should rely on various niche third-party cloud-based subscription solutions connected via API. This allows global access, constant updates and support, increased security and niche software design that really nails dealing with a particular workflow at a fraction of the price and time commitment compared with creating something new.

There are such exciting new tools out there to help cultural institutions accomplish long-held goals such as increased access via online exhibitions. The traditional museum approach of placing their entire catalog online with a searchable index will serve the research community well. But to increase public online engagement, I think they are better off focusing on temporary exhibitions and the top five to 10 percent of their collections with more dynamic and engaging solutions. The digital exhibition of Karl Lagerfeld by the Kunstmuseum Moritzburg Halle (Saale) is an illustrative example of such an approach. Vienna State Opera House has been offering reduced rate tickets for streamed content for several years, allowing me, for instance, to watch from England with my German grandmother living in California. It really opens up a world of possibilities.

With the AAM Covid-19 impact survey revealing that up to one-third of U.S. museums are in danger of permanently closing, it is clear to me that embracing innovative technology and digital solutions is vital — not just for the conservation of our art and culture, but of our cultural institutions.

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